During the past five years or so, Michael St. John, something of a veteran on the New York scene, has been presenting small shows in which a mixture of objects—paintings, constructions and altered found objects—aggregate into a witty take on the American obsession with sex, violence and Exceptionalism. While an untitled piece from 2008, in which a cast penis wags at us from a glory hole in a wooden box pasted with a decal of Old Glory, might have been atypical in form, it was characteristic of the artist’s penchant for both puns and homages (in this case to Jasper Johns’s Target with Plaster Casts, 1955). In 2009, St. John collaged a semi-pornographic image of Janet Jackson to a paint-spattered piece of wood adhered to canvas. Such works might be seen in retrospect to hint at his concerns to come, as realized in the nine untitled paintings and one sculpture in “Country Life,” St. Johns’s most recent outing at Andrea Rosen Gallery (all works but one 2013).
The title of the show refers in part to the artist’s move to rural Massachusetts. That his relationship to rural living might be ambivalent was signaled directly at the entrance by the presence of a cast-plaster red, white and blue bunny with Xs for eyes and a stitched-up mouth placed atop a silver-colored beer keg. All but one of the canvases beyond—pretty much uniform in scale, around 48 by 36 inches—consisted of a faux-wooden painted background that resembles the wall of a shack or barn, to which various elements have either been adhered or painted as if to look that way—a mixture of judiciously selected found fragments and trompe-l’oeil details. Torn-out photos of big-busted redneck girls and other real objects (in one case a bright blue bra) exist alongside numerous painted vignettes, such as a nail and its shadow (this with a lineage in Western art going back at least to the Cubists).
While the act of perusing these paintings to determine what was real and what “fake” yielded ample evidence of the artist’s very real virtuosity, the dichotomy between the two modes fed into the show’s contemporary meditation on the erosion of authenticity in the wake of increasingly spectacular modes of being (“ACCESS HOLLYWOOD” reads one ominously scrawled phrase, looking like a threat). Throughout this series, a clichéd vocabulary of country living—the keg, the barn walls, the girls—seamlessly incorporates recurring images of defaced currency and dead presidents (torn, faded photos of Lincoln and Kennedy; a Nixon campaign sticker), expressing the mix of wounded patriotism and deflated economic confidence that has fueled Tea-Party ire.
Were that all, the exhibition might have become sheer messaging. However, St. John is a creature of the art world, and his love of painting and painters, from John Peto to postwar, post-Pop artists, is manifest. One sees echoes of Johns’s career-long meditation on mortality, as well as Rauschenberg’s darkly political collages of the 1960s. Still, the totality was somehow larger than either topicality or riffs on specific artists. One might, in fact, read the entire installation as a modern-day vanitas. “JUICY COUTURE” reads one tattered logo, placed against turquoise slats (the work a collaboration, apparently, between St. John and the artist Alex McQuilkin). Near the logo is a skull. And, of course, there’s that bunny.